“The handiest and most marvellous city I ever saw”, wrote the natural historian William Hornaday of Singapore in 1885, “as well planned and carefully executed as though built entirely by one man. It is like a big desk, full of drawers and pigeonholes, where everything has its place, and can always be found in it.” This succinct appraisal seems apt even now, despite the tiny island’s transformation from an endearingly chaotic colonial port, one that embodied the exoticism of the East, into a pristine, futuristic shrine to consumerism. In the process, Singapore acquired a reputation, largely deserved, for soullessness, but these days the place has taken on a more relaxed and intriguing character, one that achieves a healthier balance between Westernized modernity and the city-state’s traditional cultures and street life.
The foundation for Singapore’s prosperity was its designation as a tax-free port by Sir Stamford Raffles, who set up a British trading post here in 1819. The port plays a key role in the economy to this day, though the island now also thrives on high-tech industry, financial services and tourism, all bolstered by a super-efficient infrastructure. All these achievements were accompanied by a major dose of paternalism, with the populace accepting heavy-handed management by the state of most aspects of life in exchange for levels of affluence that would have seemed unimaginable a couple of generations ago. Thus it is that since independence much of the population has been resettled from downtown slums and outlying kampongs (villages) into new towns, and the city’s old quarters have seen historic buildings and streets bulldozed to make way for shopping malls.
Yet although Singapore lacks much of the personality of some Southeast Asian cities, it has more than enough captivating places to visit, from elegant temples to fragrant medicinal shops to grand colonial buildings. Much of Singapore’s fascination springs from its multicultural population, a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which can make a short walk across town feel like a hop from one country to another, and whose mouthwatering cuisines are a major highlight of any visit. The city also rejoices in a clutch of fine historical museums that offer a much-needed perspective on the many successes and sacrifices that made Singapore what it is today, plus a lively arts scene featuring no shortage of international talent and local creativity.
Singapore is one of the more expensive Asian cities, especially for accommodation, and many items are priced at Western levels. On the other hand, with budget dormitory accommodation in plentiful supply, and both food and internal travel cheap, it’s possible to survive on £20/US$32 a day, though that would leave little for sightseeing. If you want to share a double room in a lower-mid-range hotel and enjoy one restaurant meal a day in addition to hawker-cooked food, your budget is likely to soar to £60/US$95 at least.
Note that Singapore has a 7 percent Goods and Services Tax (GST), which is levied by all companies except small businesses. Prices in shops include GST, but it’s not uncommon for hotels and restaurants to leave it out, quoting prices with “++” at the end. In this case, the first plus indicates that they levy a ten percent service charge (as all mid-range and upmarket hotels and restaurants do) and the second plus indicates GST on the combined cost of the room or food and the service charge, that is, a 17.7 percent surcharge in total. Where two prices are given for a museum or other attraction in this book, the second price is for a child ticket unless otherwise stated.
Crime and personal safety
If you lose something in Singapore, you’re more likely to have someone running after you with it than running away. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be complacent – muggings have been known to occur and theft from dormitories by other tourists is not unknown. Singapore’s police, recognizable by their dark blue uniforms, keep a fairly low profile but are polite and helpful when approached.
Singapore is notorious for the fines that people found guilty of various misdemeanours are liable to pay. Though these fines aren’t often enforced – their severity has the intended deterrent effect on an already compliant public – it reveals something of the micro-managed state the island has become that, in principle, someone can be fined hundreds of dollars for smoking in certain public places and shopping malls, “jaywalking” (crossing a main road within 50m of a designated pedestrian crossing or overhead bridge) and littering. Even chewing gum has been banned (for the mess it creates when not disposed of properly), except when the gum contains prescribed medication.
While the above might seem amusing, the penalties for possession or trafficking illegal drugs are no laughing matter (foreigners have been executed in the past), and if you are arrested for drugs offences you can expect no mercy and little help from your consular representatives.
Culture and etiquette
The rules of thumb often trotted out concerning behaviour in Asia apply much less to Singapore, given how Westernized the island can be. Nonetheless, appearances are deceptive, and it pays to bear a few points in mind to avoid causing offence.
Although Singaporeans are not especially prudish when it comes to dress, they may well frown upon public displays of affection, which aren’t really the done thing. It’s also not appropriate to pat children (or even friends, for that matter) on the head – the head being considered sacred in Buddhist culture. Conversely, the soles of the feet and, by extension, the soles of your shoes, are regarded as unclean, hence the need to remove footwear before stepping over the threshold when visiting people at home, at just about every guesthouse and before entering a temple or mosque.
One cliché about Asia that does still hold in Singapore concerns the importance of not losing face. A mistake or problem that might be regarded as trifling elsewhere might, here, be rather humiliating for the person responsible. The most likely situation in which visitors might need to bear this particular sensitivity in mind is when making a complaint. Rather than raising your voice and making a scene, it’s best to state your case politely but firmly; this will help preserve the dignity of whomever you are complaining to, and improve the chances of a speedy resolution of the issue.
To avoid losing face yourself, note that when it comes to meetings, the old Singaporean habit of nonchalantly showing up half an hour late for social and other engagements has been replaced by pretty stringent timekeeping, so be sure to set off early.
Finally, while there are generally few restrictions about what you can and can’t photograph, staff at some temples and other places of worship take a dim view of snapping pictures on their premises; when in doubt, always ask.
Singapore’s power supply is at 230 V/50 Hz, and British-style sockets – taking plugs with three square pins – are the standard.
British citizens, and those of the Republic of Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, don’t need a visa to enter Singapore. Regulations change from time to time, though, so check with the embassy before departure. You’ll normally be stamped in for at least thirty days.
It is possible to extend your stay by up to three months. This being Singapore, you can apply online: check the section on extending short-term visit passes at w ica.gov.sg, or call the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority on t 6391 6100 for more details. Otherwise, there’s always the option of taking a bus up to Johor Bahru, across the border in Malaysia, and then coming back in again with a new visit pass.
For a list of embassies in Singapore, as well as a list of Singapore embassies abroad, see the Missions section of wmfa.gov.sg.
Customs Upon entry from anywhere other than Malaysia you can bring into Singapore up to three litres in total of spirits, wine and beer duty-free; duty is payable on all tobacco. For up-to-the-minute customs information, including how the alcohol allowance works in practice, go to w http://www.customs.gov.sg. Under certain conditions, tourists can reclaim the Goods and Services Tax (GST) of seven percent on the cost of items they have bought in Singapore; for more on the red tape this involves.
The levels of hygiene and medical care in Singapore are higher than in much of the rest of Southeast Asia. Tap water is drinkable throughout the island and all food for public consumption is prepared to exacting standards. No inoculations are required for visiting Singapore. However, it’s a wise precaution to visit your doctor no later than four weeks before you leave to check that you are up to date with your polio, typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis A inoculations. It pays to use mosquito repellent in Singapore, particularly if you’re in a nature reserve or beach area. This isn’t because Singapore is malarial – it isn’t – but because mosquitoes may carry dengue fever, an illness which is seldom fatal but can be debilitating while it lasts. Note that DEET-based repellents are not available in Singapore, so if you prefer these you will have to buy them abroad.
Travellers unused to tropical climates periodically suffer from sunburn and dehydration. The easiest way to avoid this is to restrict your exposure to the sun, use high-factor sunscreens, drink plenty of water, and wear sunglasses and a hat. Heat stroke is more serious: it is indicated by a high temperature, dry red skin and a fast pulse and can require hospitalization.
Medical services in Singapore are excellent, with staff almost everywhere speaking good English. Pharmacies are well stocked with familiar brand-name drugs, though only the largest outlets have pharmacists dispensing prescription medication; the two main chains are Guardian and Watsons, both ubiquitous.Private clinics are found throughout the city, even inside shopping malls such as the Tanglin Shopping Centre (19 Tanglin Rd) and Paragon (290 Orchard Rd). A consultation costs from $50. You can find a list of dentists at w yellowpages.com.sg.
Before you set off, it’s a good idea to arrange travel insurance to cover medical expenses as well as loss of luggage, cancellation of flights and so on. A typical policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event that you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police.
The best place to look for internet cafés is Little India, where they are ubiquitous and charge as little as $2 per hour. Chinatown and Orchard Road have a sprinkling of internet cafés too, though they may charge quite a bit more. Several café chains offer free wi-fi, too. It’s also possible to sign up for the free Wireless@SG wi-fi service available in the lobbies of many shopping malls; though not always reliable, it’s mighty convenient when it works. One site where you can sign up is at bit.ly/dw6fFX. The snag is that you will need a friend with a Singapore mobile phone, as the system can only send your password by SMS to a local number.
Singapore’s postal system is predictably efficient. The island has dozens of post offices (typically Mon–Fri 9.30am–6pm & Sat 9.30am–2pm), including one conveniently off Orchard Road at 1 Killiney Rd (near Somerset MRT) that keeps extended hours (Mon–Fri 9.30am–9pm, Sat 9.30am–4pm, Sun 10.30am–4pm). Poste restante/general delivery (bring proof of ID) is at the Singapore Post Centre, 10 Eunos Rd (near Paya Lebar MRT; Mon–Fri 8am–6pm, Sat 8am–2pm). For more on the mail system, contact SingPost (t 1605, whttp://www.singpost.com).
The best maps of Singapore are those at w streetdirectory.com, also accessible via the Singapore Maps app. Besides being totally up to speed with the constant rebuilding and reshaping of Singapore, these maps include handy features such as the ability to view shops inside buildings by clicking, and clicking on bus stops to reveal which buses serve them and when the next services will arrive. Bookshops sell printed versions of these maps as street atlases, with new editions regularly published. Otherwise, the maps in this book should be sufficient for most of your exploration, and you can back them up with free foldout maps available from the Singapore Tourism Board.
Singapore’s currency is the Singapore dollar, divided into 100 cents. Notes are issued in denominations of $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, $1000 and $10,000; coins are in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cents, and $1. At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around $2 to £1 and $1.25 to US$1. All dollar prices in this book are in local currency unless otherwise stated.
Singapore banking hours are generally Monday to Friday 9.30am to 3pm (although some open until 6pm), Saturday 9.30am to 12.30pm. Major branches on Orchard Road are open Sunday 9.30am to 3pm as well. Outside of these hours, currency exchange is available at moneychangers, whose rates are comparable to those at banks. Major hotels also offer currency exchange, though don’t expect their rates to be competitive.
ATMs are plentiful around Singapore and take most types of debit and credit card, usually charging a fee for each withdrawal. Larger retailers and companies accept all major cards, and there are often adverts in the press offering discounts on shopping and meals if you pay with your card.
Opening hours and public holidays
Shopping centres are open daily 10am to 9.30pm, while offices generally work Monday to Friday 8.30am to 5pm and sometimes on Saturday mornings. In general, Chinese temples open daily from 7am to around 6pm, Hindu temples 6am to noon and 5 to 9pm, and mosques 8.30am to noon and 2.30 to 4pm.
Singapore has numerous public holidays, reflecting its mix of cultures. Dates for some of these vary; with Muslim festivals, we’ve given the months in which they fall during 2013–15.
It’s worth noting the dates of local school holidays, at which time Sentosa and other places of interest to kids can be inordinately crowded: schools take a break for one week in March and September, throughout June and from mid-November until the end of December.
Local calls from private phones in Singapore cost next to nothing; calls from public phones cost 10c for three minutes. Nearly all phone numbers have eight digits (except for a few free or premium-rate numbers, which start with 1800 or 1900 respectively). Land-line numbers always begin with 6 and mobile numbers with 8 or 9; there are no area codes.
Local SIM cards are available from any 7-11 store or Singtel/Starhub shop. Prices vary depending on what packages are being promoted, though expect to pay at least $10, and bring your passport to complete the registration process. Note that on Singapore networks, receiving calls and texts on your phone incurs a charge.
Singapore has a good range of sports facilities, including one of the best networks of swimming pools anywhere – almost every new town has its own open-air 50m pool. A full list of state-run sports centres appears at w ssc.gov.sg; some venues, including privately run facilities, are listed below.
Golf The Marina Bay Golf Course at 80 Rhu Cross (t 6345 7788, w mbgc.com.sg), next to the Bay East garden, is one of the most central and reasonably priced golf facilities, and as such it tends to get booked up quickly – best to reserve a slot at least a couple of weeks in advance (mornings are less busy). Nine holes costs $83 on weekdays, including use of a golf buggy. Bus #158 from Aljunied MRT.
Gyms The main operators are California Fitness (w californiafitness.com), True Fitness (w truefitness.com.sg) and Fitness First (whttp://www.fitnessfirst.com.sg). All have gyms downtown, though you will need to take out membership to use them.
Swimming The most conveniently located of the island’s Olympic-sized pools is at the Jalan Besar Swimming Complex on Tyrwhitt Rd (t 6293 9058). Farrer Park or Lavender MRT. Daily 8am–9.30pm (Wed from 2.30pm). Other pools are listed at wsingaporeswimming.com.sg.
Tennis Farrer Park Tennis Centre, 1 Rutland Rd t 6299 4166 (daily 7am–10pm; Farrer Park or Little India MRT); Kallang Tennis Centre, 52 Stadium Rd t 6348 1291 (daily 7am–10pm; Mountbatten MRT).
Singapore is eight hours ahead of Universal Time (GMT) year-round, and therefore two hours behind Sydney (when daylight saving time is not in effect there) and thirteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
There are a few cases where you might want to tip someone offering you a personal service, for example a hairdresser or barber, but these are the exception rather than the rule – tipping is seldom the custom in Singapore. The better restaurants add a ten percent service charge to the bill anyway, and the inexpensive kopitiam-type diners don’t expect tips, nor do taxi drivers.
In a place as organized and wired-up as Singapore, it’s usually straightforward to get hold of accurate and comprehensive information of use to travellers: everything from public transport to sales taxes is extensively documented online, some companies provide toll-free t 1800 helplines, and many restaurants and shops have websites that are kept up to date.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB; information line Mon–Fri 9am–6pm t 1800 736 2000, w yoursingapore.com) and operates Visitors’ Centres at Changi Airport and downtown on Orchard Road, diagonally across from the 313@Somerset mall (daily 9.30am–10.30pm). Two smaller Visitors’ Centres exist on the ground floor of the ION Orchard mall (above Orchard MRT; daily 10am–10pm), and behind the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown (Mon–Fri 9am–9pm, Sat & Sun 9am–10pm).
If you have a particular interest In Singapore’s past and architectural heritage, you can get booklets providing background on downtown districts from the Singapore City Gallery, or download them from w ura.gov.sg/rediscover.
A number of publications offer entertainment listings plus reviews of restaurants and nightlife. The best of these are the weeklies I-S (w is-magazine.com; free) and the monthly Time Out (w timeoutsingapore.com; $4). Other freebie publications available from Visitors’ Centres and hotels contain similar information, and the “Life!” section of the Straits Times also has a decent listings section. Geared towards the large expat community (though with some information of interest to tourists) are The Finder, a free monthly magazine available at some downtown bars and restaurants, and the website w expatsingapore.com.
Singapore tourist offices abroad
Australia Level 11, AWA Building, 47 York St, Sydney t 02 9290 2888.
Travellers with disabilities
Singapore is a moderately accessible city for travellers with disabilities. Many hotels and even a handful of guesthouses make provision for disabled guests, though often there will be only one accessible room in the smaller establishments – always call ahead and book in plenty of time.
Getting around Singapore is relatively straightforward. MRT stations and trains are built to assist passengers using wheelchairs or with impaired sight or hearing, while around 100 bus routes are now fully served by accessible buses, though some stops may not be suitable for wheelchair users. For more details, check the “Accessibility” section of w smrt.com.sg, and the “WAB services” section of wsbstransit.com.sg. If you can afford to use taxis all the time, so much the better; SMRT taxis (t 6555 8888) are wheelchair-accessible, and Comfort Taxis and CityCab (both on t 6552 1111) have drivers trained to assist wheelchair-bound passengers.
The best people to talk to for pre-trip advice are the Disabled People’s Association of Singapore (t 6899 1220, w dpa.org.sg) or the Singapore Tourism Board. You may also want to consult one local tour operator, the Asia Travel Group (t 6438 0038, wasiatravelgroup.com.sg), which can arrange customized tours of the island in suitably equipped minibuses.
Shaped like a diamond, Singapore’s main island is 42km from east to west and 23km from north to south, compact enough to explore in just a few days. The southern corner of the diamond is home to the main part of the city – “downtown”, or just “town” to locals – which centres on the Singapore River, the creek where Raffles first landed on the island in 1819. After a full day’s sightseeing, it’s undoubtedly the top place to unwind, lined with former warehouses that are now home to buzzing restaurants and bars.
The main draws for visitors are the city’s historic ethnic enclaves, particularly Little India, a couple of kilometres north of the river. Packed with gaudy Hindu temples, curry houses and stores selling exotic produce and spices, the district retains much of its original character, as does nearby Arab Street, dominated by the golden domes of the Sultan Mosque. South of the river, Chinatown is a little sanitized though it still has a number of appealing shrines; an immaculately restored Chinese mansion, the Baba House; plus a heritage centre documenting the hardships experienced by generations of Chinese migrants in Singapore. Wherever you wander in these old quarters, you’ll see rows of the city’s characteristic shophouses; compact townhouse-like buildings that are the island’s traditional architectural hallmark.
Of course, the British left their distinctive imprint on the island as well, most visibly just north of the Singapore River in the Colonial District, around whose grand Neoclassical buildings – including City Hall, Parliament House and the famed Raffles Hotel – the island’s British residents used to promenade. Also here are the excellent National Museum, showcasing Singapore’s history and culture, and Fort Canning Hill, a lush park that’s home to a few historic remains. All these are constantly being upstaged, however, by the newest part of town, Marina Bay, built on reclaimed land around a man-made reservoir into which the Singapore River now drains. Around it are arrayed the three-towered Marina Bay Sands casino resort, the spiky-roofed Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay arts centre and Gardens by the Bay, with its two huge arch-shaped conservatories.
Nearly as modern as Marina Bay, but steeped in tradition as far as Singaporean consumerism is concerned is Orchard Road, a parade of shopping malls that begins just a few minutes’ walk inland from the Colonial District. Just beyond is the finest park on the whole island, the Botanic Gardens, featuring a little bit of everything that makes Singapore such a verdant city, though most tourists make a beeline for the ravishing orchid section.
Downtown Singapore is probably where you’ll spend most of your time, but the rest of the state has its attractions too. North of downtown is the island’s last remaining pocket of primary rainforest, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the splendid zoo, where the animals are confined in naturalistic enclosures rather than cages. There’s more fauna of the avian kind on show in the west of the island at the excellent Jurong Bird Park, while eastern Singapore is home to some sandy beaches and a museum recalling the infamous Changi Prison, where so many soldiers lost their lives in World War II. Among the many smaller islands and islets that lie within Singapore waters, the only one that is close to being a must-see is Sentosa. Linked to the main island by causeway and cable car, it boasts Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park and several slick beach hotels.
Singapore’s climate is simplicity itself: hot and humid. The island experiences two monsoons, from the southwest (May–Sept) and the northeast (Nov–March), the latter picking up plenty of moisture from the South China Sea. Consequently, December and January are usually the rainiest months, though it can be wet at any time of year; during the southwest monsoon, for example, there are often predawn squally showers sweeping across from the Straits of Malacca. The inter-monsoon months of April and October have a tendency to be especially stifling, due to the lack of breezes. At least it’s easy enough to prepare for Singapore’s weather – have sun cream and an umbrella with you at all times.
Along with shopping, eating ranks as the national pastime of Singaporeans, and a mind-boggling number of food outlets on just about every street cater to this obsession. One of the joys of the local eating scene is its distinctive and affordable street food, featuring Chinese and Indian dishes you won’t find in China or India, served up in myriad hawker centres and food courts, as is great Malay and Indonesian food. Also worth discovering is Nonya cooking, a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cooking styles developed by the Peranakan community. Western food of all kinds is plentiful too, though it tends to be pricier than other cuisines from Asia, which are equally available. Quite a few of the more run-of-the-mill restaurants swing both ways by offering both Western and Asian dishes, and there’s no shortage of upmarket places serving a fusion of the two.
With its affluence and large expat community, Singapore supports a huge range of drinking holes, from elegant colonial chambers through hip rooftop venues with skyline views to slightly tacky joints featuring karaoke or middling covers bands. There’s also a bunch of glitzy and vibrant clubs where people let their hair down to cutting-edge sounds minus – this being Singapore – any assistance from illicit substances. Some venues regularly manage to lure the world’s leading DJs to play, too.
Singapore offers an excellent range of cultural events in all genres, drawing on both Asian and Western traditions, and even on a brief visit it’s hard not to notice how much money has been invested in the arts. Prime downtown property has been turned over to arts organizations in areas like Waterloo Street and Little India, and prestige venues like Theatres on the Bay bring in world-class performers – at top-dollar prices. This isn’t to say that all is hunky-dory: questions remain over whether creativity is truly valued when censorship lingers, if not as overtly as in the 1970s and 1980s, then in terms of there being well-established red lines concerning party politics, ethnicity and religion which no one dare cross. More cynically, some say that support for the arts is a way to keep Singapore attractive to expats and its own sometimes restive middle class.